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In 1938, education theorist John Dewey published a short volume entitled Experience and Education. In typical Dewey fashion, he begins by arguing the philosophical underpinnings of what makes experiences so valuable. He states that in truth, young learners (in particular) are most accustomed to learning from experiences. They do so on a daily basis: from their parents, in the grocery store line, walking down the street, on the family farm. Experiences, Dewey points out, are the most important learning processes in a young person’s life.
Four thousand miles away in Berlin Germany, Kurt Hahn, education philosopher and founder of Outward Bound and United World College, was also dedicating his entire career to the notion of experiences being the most crucial part of a young person’s learning. Each of Hahn’s endeavors addresses what he called the “Five Decays” of youth. He states:
“Our young are today surrounded by five decays—the decay of fitness due to our modern methods of locomotion, the decay of self discipline helped by stimulants and tranquilisers, the decay of enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis, the decay of skill and care helped by the decline in craftsmanship and above all the decay of compassion which William Temple called spiritual death.” (Hahn, 1959)
Organizations such as the Association for Experiential Education have taken Dewey and Hahn’s philosophical framework and mobilized it into a collection of dedicated professionals committed to delivering seminal learning experiences for young people. Yet, despite the efforts of individuals and organizations such as AEE, Hahn and Dewey, experiences are continually pushed to the back-burner of educational thought.
Intuitively, we, as educators, know this is devolutionary. We know that the most fruitful experiences for students are those that they are able to immerse themselves in. Those experiences that leave them with dirty hands, tired feet, full bellies, and reflective dreams. Many of these experiences were the most formative for our own upbringing. The time I spent have backpacking along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, the first time I walked a meditation labyrinth, and the time I have spent with horses come to mind for me.
But we are caught in a world that focuses on testing, seat time, and core academic subjects. An educational world that is cutting art, gym, and electives because they are not areas of focus on standardized tests. It is no wonder that educational experiences are regarded as tertiary. Even simple experiences such as field trips are often viewed as detracting from valuable instructional time that students require to make up deficits in reading, writing, and math. The focus on measurable academic skills has left many teachers to consider experiences an afterthought, if consider them at all.
When considering additional research, for example that done on the “32 Million Word Gap (Hart and Risley, 1995)”, the justification for learning experiences becomes even more difficult. To the frantic eye, direct classroom instruction emerges as the most logical, testable, results driven method of closing what is a detrimental gap for many young people. Building on the findings of Hart and Risley, researchers such as Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown have been used to justify the strategies such as the repetition of readings three times to ensure maximum student retention of vocabulary and context. But, even Beck and McKeown have stated that the context of vocabulary greatly affects student retention and comprehension; herein lies the importance of experience.
Many of our students simply do not have the requisite background knowledge on which they can anchor our classroom instruction. They lack the foundation to make vocabulary connections, construct text comprehension, and critically think about the topics they are learning about. If we are trying to truly educate our young people, we must work to provide for them the rich context that we know is essential in learning. The context that will allow for strong vocabulary associations, meaningful learning, inferential thinking. The set of experiences that will build their learning confidence and potential. Only through this process will simple memorization and regurgitation will become an afterthought, and the 32 Million Word Gap be narrowed.
Making Learning Experiences A Reality
In the spring of 2012, my colleague Chris Herman and I began brainstorming a course that would combine an intense learning expedition to New Orleans with an academically rigorous history class. Our plan began with a strong desire to take students to a place with a rich history that was not too far from home and to pair that experience with an entire year’s worth of academics. The course was designed as a lecture-based, college-prep seminar mimicking a Freshman/Sophomore level college history course.
A vast majority of our course was constructed through very traditional means. We lectured with lengthy content-rich powerpoint presentations, guided students through supplemental readings from college-level texts, asked students to write 1-2 page nightly assignments, and tested student knowledge using multiple-choice quizzes/tests as well as lengthy mid-term and final exams.
Through both our formative and summative assessments, students got the knowledge we were trying to impart on them. We had delivered it effectively, and they had received and digested it effectively. Yet, despite their performance on our assessments, it was still clear that New Orleans and the Mississippi River were mythical places. There were so many intangible ideas that our instruction was simply not able to express effectively. There were so many details that students were missing from simply looking at pictures and reading dense informational texts.
Even before we departed, it was apparent that the trip to New Orleans was exactly what students were going to need to solidify their learning. It was clear that the experience was the missing link. They needed to walk through the French Quarter and hear the Zydeco Jazz bands playing on the streets. They needed to eat 3 (or 5) beignets. They needed to tour the Bayou and hear the squawking sounds of the Anhinga in the brackish waters.
And that’s exactly what they got. Using carefully constructed journaling prompts, exploratory photography projects, public presentations of learning, and readings of the novel Life On The Mississippi by Mark Twain, students were immersed in New Orleans culture for seven intense days. They toured around the French Quarter, listened to a history of plantation life, walked around the garden district, learned about the city’s famed ghosts, listened to some of the best jazz in the world, and ate some of the strangest food they’d experienced in their young lives.
One of the major keys to the trip's success was in our planning. We began with the end in mind; constructing an itinerary to include a relatively equal representation of the competencies we wanted students to demonstrate. We focused on the cornerstones of New Orleans culture: Art, Architecture, Creoles and Cajuns, Food, Iron Works, Mardi Gras, Music, and Voodoo.
Building An Imperative
Admittedly, our New Orleans trip is a bit out of reach for many schools. We spent five instructional days and plenty of cash on a trip that was easily justifiable to our school’s community. But many educators do not have the leverage to justify such an experience. The trend is to emphasize learning in the classroom where pundits believe the most measurable instruction takes place. As practitioners of our art, we know that these experiences are paramount for success on what has been deemed representative measures of learning. So, how do we get our stakeholders to support our experiential efforts? Three pieces of advice: start simple, be explicit, and share liberally.
Start Simple - Traveling to New Orleans for a week does not have to be (nor should it be) the first trip you plan with students. Start with a something simple and interesting that is not a museum. Leverage a local partnership with a historical site, venue, or gallery.
Be Explicit - Spend ample amount of time connecting classroom instruction to what you want students to learn so they can focus on why they are going to this awesome place and the learning you are looking for.
Share Liberally - When we returned from New Orleans, the most powerful experience for students was a cultural evening we organized for families and the school’s staff. We asked for a lot of support on this trip, and by making our learning experiences very public, our community was able to see student learning very clearly. As a result, we garnered broad support for our next experiential effort and solidified the outstanding investment our community had made.
As you are planning for this year’s coming instruction, begin building the imperative for learning experiences in your school. Reflect back on your early explorations of the world, and build upon the ideas of our educational framers to provide the most outstanding teaching and learning you can.